Geographical Shifts

4th September 2018

“We went to the terraces that were situated in front of the Lowfields Road stand… I was immediately struck by how green the grass was and how boldly the whitewash and the goalmouth stood out…

…Once the match kicked off, I noticed that the spectators around me did not seem to have much patience with the Leeds [United] team’s efforts. They were not interested in fancy routines or intricate manoeuvres. They wanted instant results. Specifically, they wanted the ball to be deposited in the Charlton net and, when Leeds eventually put it there, it triggered a paroxysm of unbridled celebration from everyone on the terrace. It was the only goal of the game, but it was sufficient to meet the demands of the local supporters”.

[An Ordinary Spectator, pp 103-104]

I was relatively late coming to live soccer. My father had given me my rugby league baptism (Hunslet vs Whitehaven) at the age of 6 in 1961 and taken me to watch Yorkshire play cricket (in the Roses match at Headingley) in 1966, but it was not until 1968 that I caught up with Leeds United at Elland Road . September 4th 1968 to be exact – 50 years ago today.

Dad had no real interest in soccer – and was certainly not a Leeds United supporter – and so it was with some friends after school that I attended a relatively low-key match: a second round Football League Cup tie with Charlton Athletic.

I described my initial impressions of the occasion in An Ordinary Spectator. My main interest was in seeing the individual players and, unlike the major clubs’ approach to the equivalent tournament today, there was little doubt that Leeds would field a near full-strength side. I duly made a mental note of the famous names – Bremner, Charlton, Hunter et al – that I was seeing for the first time, live and in the flesh.

In the book, I also recognised how the match programme (price one shilling) now registered as a historical record of the times. In particular, the Club Notes included a piece on how the arrangements for the second leg of Leeds’s Inter Cities Fairs Cup final – the away tie with Ferencvaros of Hungary – which had been held over from the previous season, were somewhat uncertain because of “the Czecho-Slovakia-Russian political events of the last few weeks”. (The Russian tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia a fortnight earlier). The club was using all the available means “to ascertain the situation, by telephone and cable”.

I will return to the Leeds/Charlton match programme below.

If I were to summarise my approach to watching soccer over half a century, I would describe it as opportunistic. I have not had the pleasure (or burden, delete as appropriate) of fervently supporting a particular side and so most of the games I have attended have been from a genuinely neutral perspective.

The venues have been determined by a variety of factors: where I happened to have been living (Cambridge United at the Abbey Stadium, Wimbledon at Plough Lane ) or visiting ( Ipswich Town at Portman Road ) or just passing through ( Leicester City at Filbert Street on the way back to Cambridge after playing cricket in Loughborough). There have also been the occasional sojourns on foreign holidays (for home fixtures of Bayern Munich, Hertha Berlin and Espanol in the respective Olympic Stadiums of Munich, Berlin and Barcelona ). These days, I have an eclectic approach to day-trips from my Milngavie base, mainly to Scottish venues (Dumbarton, Stirling Albion, Albion Rovers), but sometimes further afield (Carlisle, Newcastle, Berwick).

Looking back at the Leeds/Charlton match, one point that is of interest is the status of the two teams at the time. Leeds United were the current holders of the League Cup – their first major trophy – having defeated Arsenal at Wembley the previous Spring. The side would go on to lift the Football League Championship for the first time that season. Charlton Athletic came into the match as leaders of the old Second Division, though they were to finish third and outside the promotion places. In 2018-19, fifty years on, Leeds have been outside the top division for 15 years, whilst Charlton are now in League 1 (or League Division Three in oldspeak).

More generally, half a century of promotion and relegation has produced its inevitable churn in the hierarchy of English football. Of the 22 teams in the 1968-69 First Division, 13 are in the 20-side Premier League of 2018-19, 7 in the Championship and two (Sunderland and Coventry City) in League 1. Further down the pyramid, the fates of the teams in the Third Division of 1968-69 vary from those now in the Premier League (AFC Bournemouth, Brighton and Hove Albion, Watford) to the 6 clubs that are no longer in the Football League at all.

The drop-outs are particularly revealing, I think, because their composition is an echo of the broader economic shifts in the country as a whole over the last five decades. Of the 92 teams in the Football League in 1968-69, 15 are no longer in these top four divisions and, of these, 12 were situated above the Wash-Severn line. Their replacements include only 6 sides from this large region, the remainder being found largely in the more affluent South East.

We can stay with this theme. Yorkshire has lost three clubs from the Football League of 50 years ago – Bradford Park Avenue, Halifax Town and York City – without replacement, whilst several of the other departures have been from geographically remote locations (from the rest of the League’s perspective) such as Barrow, Workington, Darlington and Torquay. (The accession of Yeovil Town slightly redresses this point).

I make these observations without comment, as it could be argued that the “old” Football League was top-heavy with sides in the North of England and some sort of regional re-balancing was needed. Moreover, the arrangements for promotion and relegation to the League have been based on a meritocracy for many years, rather than the old system of election or re-election by the other member clubs.

Finally, back to the match programme for Leeds United vs Charlton Athletic in 1968. I mentioned in An Ordinary Spectator that stapled within it was the “Official Journal of the Football League” – the Football League Review – which I assumed to have been attached to all clubs’ programmes in a given week. It looked worthy and dull and, at the time, I didn’t read it.

I did look at this for this blog, however, and some of its contents are not a pleasant read. Quite apart from examples of casual sexism, there is one reference – in the “Opinion” column of Walter Pilkington of the Lancashire Evening Post – to the population of Bradford which is frankly grotesque.

I mention this not to make an obvious point about the social mores of a past age and the differences in what was/is considered acceptable then and now. Rather, it is to illustrate how difficult it is – from the perspective of today – for me to make sense of the occasion of my first exposure to live soccer 50 years ago.

On the one hand, much remains absolutely crystal clear, as if I had watched Leeds United play Charlton Athletic yesterday: the state of the pitch, having to continually jerk my head to get a line of sight from the shallow terrace, the passion of the crowd…

And yet, in other respects, it does seem such a long time ago.

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